You may not be able to tell it by listening to the soulfully blissful R&B-styled swinging jump/blues of his newest CD, Gotta Bring it on Home to You (Delta Groove Music), but at the very core of sax-master supreme Terry Hanck, beats the heart of a far-out and groovy Avant-garde musician.
Well maybe not so much at the present time. But back in the day!
“Well, when I finally decided that I wanted to play tenor sax, I went through a period in my life where I wanted to be an Avant-garde jazz player,” laughed Hanck. “But I had no idea what I was doing, no musical knowledge whatsoever. I wanted to go to ‘Z’ without learning ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C’ and so forth first.”
His saxophone playing may not instantly invoke memories of Ornette Coleman’s “Focus on Sanity” or the Sun Ra Arkestra’s “Ancient Aiethopia,” but Hanck has managed to strike a favorable chord with blues and soul music lovers all over the globe the past few decades. Gotta Bring it on Home to You grabbed immediate attention upon its initial Tax Day release date this year, and the buzz hasn’t let up for one second since. Both the attention and the buzz are well-deserved.
“Finally, the band has been getting a little recognition and everything for the stuff we’ve put out. We got nominated for the Soul/Blues Album of the Year at Blues Blast, so that was great,” Hanck said. “And I was nominated for Best Instrumentalist at the Blues Music Awards (BMAs), so a lot has happened this year.”
Though the dividends have more than proved worthy of the effort it took, there were a couple of moments in the studio during the recording of Gotta Bring it on Home to You when Hanck was a bit unsure of what he was going to emerge out of the laboratory with.
“When I first went into the studio, it was like, ‘Man, I gotta’ put something out. It’s been awhile.’ So we went in and started working on things and I thought, ‘I don’t know if this stuff is really cohesive or if it hangs together.’ It just seemed like there were ideas here and there, but they didn’t really go together,” he said. “But with all the great musicians that played on it, all of a sudden it started coming together and then we started feeling a lot more positive about everything.”
One of the positive influences from the outset was the presence of multi-tasker – and one of the hottest guitarists on the scene – Chris ‘Kid’ Andersen. Andersen played guitar and organ on the disc (it was also recorded at Andersen’s studio – Greaseland), and co-produced it along with Hanck.
“He (Andersen) just keeps getting better and better. And working with him is so great,” said Hanck. “We just kind of put the whammy on it. When we got done with it and started listening to the finished product, we thought, ‘This is pretty cool.’ Chris is just such a great engineer. He just instinctively knows what I want and is so knowledgeable for someone his age about all the genres and eras of music and how to get all those sounds.”
One thing that Hanck could not be accused of during the sessions for Gotta Bring it on Home to You was having an abundance of spare time. In addition to co-producing the disc with Andersen, his other chores included writing and arranging tunes, leading the band and oh, yeah – blowing some killer tenor saxophone and cutting the lion’s share of the vocals. But, as Hanck explains, wearing all those different hats was never an issue.
“It’s almost not an issue. I really don’t even think about it (being charged with so many tasks). Because really, the music is stuff you create, so you want to be involved in the whole process,” he said. “We knew what we wanted when we entered the studio and we knew how to get it, so that’s just what we did; that’s how that works for us.”
Hanck also gained some massive exposure earlier this year thanks to his song-writing skills. He took home first place in the International Songwriter Competition in the blues category for the soul/blues ballad “I Keep Holdin’ On.” For the most part, Hanck likes for the songs to find him, rather than him having to sit down and try and muster up inspiration to write one on the spot. However, sometimes forcing the muse to show itself is just what the doctor orders.
“Sometimes putting pressure on me like that does help. I might go a year and wonder how I’m going to come up with songs for another album,” he said. “But it’s always different. Some songs you’ll have a groove for and will put some words to it, other times the whole song will just come to me. That usually happens when I’m out driving in the car.”
As he has for countless scores of musicians throughout the decades, the man they called ‘The Genius’ has had a profound impact on the way that Hanck crafts his own music.
“One of my early songwriting influences – even back before I was a musician – was Ray Charles. The era around 1960-63, you know, Ray Charles was just it for me, even though I wasn’t playing yet,” he said. “But everything I heard – the jump, the swing, the soul, R&B, jazz, the early rock, all that has had an influence on the way I write songs.”
They may not yet be in league with dinosaurs, but there just aren’t many (blues) vocal bands these days that are fronted by sax or brass players. Of course, there’s the great Eddie Shaw and his 757 All-Stars and Big James and the Chicago Playboys. And then another couple of outfits that quickly comes to mind are Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, along with Big Sam’s Funky Nation – groups that hail from the Big Easy and deal heavily in a blend of funky jazz. You can place Hanck’s horn-fronted troops on the short list of bands that specialize in a mixture of blues-based R&B with more than a preponderance of soulful early rock-n-roll, to boot.
“I don’t know why there aren’t more bands (like his), but I’m kind of glad there isn’t. I really don’t need the competition,” he laughed. “Hopefully, this will finally start working for me, because I’ve ran up against a lot of prejudice, especially with some of the promoters in Europe. A lot of them seem to think that a blues-based band has to be fronted by a guitar or a harmonica player. They really seem to pigeon-hole stuff. I’m so old that I tend to forget that people don’t remember when guys like Junior Walker and King Curtis and guys like that played sax and led bands.”
You don’t have to journey very far into one of Hanck’s discs before his unbridled love for the early, glorious sounds of bands like the aforementioned Junior Walker & The All-Stars, King Curtis and Little Richard comes pouring out of the speakers. That’s the type of music that Hanck cut his teeth on as a youngster coming up in Chicago, as well as later on down the road when he relocated to the West Coast.
“Rhythm and blues was what I always loved when I was a kid, and at that time, all the early rock-n-roll records had the saxophone playing the lead – usually tenor sax. And I always loved that sound,” he said. “And I’m 69 now and a lot of the genres (that can be heard on Gotta Bring it on Home to You) is stuff that I came up listening to. I don’t really separate things into soul, blues or jazz. To me, it all kind of fits together.”
With his love and appreciation of music from the 50s and 60s as much a part of his life in 2014 as it was when he was a teenager, it’s little wonder that when it comes time to create music of his very own, that vibe would have a major presence; a major presence that he puts his own spin on.
“It’s just by nature, it’s what I feel inside. But at the same time, when I play, I’m not afraid to use harmonics or do things that aren’t just traditional,” he said. “When I play, I don’t feel like I’m playing ‘oldies music’ or re-creating a genre. It just feels like I’m trying to bring the music to life and make it brand-new every time I play it.”
That sense of freshness certainly comes bursting through every time Hanck picks up his sax or steps up to the vocal microphone. That might be one reason that explains whether you’re listening to one of his CDs, or whether you’re seeing his group up close and personal at a festival, it really does seem like Hanck and company are having a thoroughly good time and are genuinely enjoying their work. Hanck’s band is comprised of Johnny Soubrand on guitar; Tim Wagar on bass; and drummer Butch Cousins.
““Butch has been with me for about 20 years and Johnny around 10 years and Tim three or four. They’re a great band and we do have fun. In this business, you’re not getting rich, so if you’re not having fun, what are you doing? Honestly though, I think a lot of that comes from me having done it for so long; it didn’t come easy for me at first,” he said. “I was very shy in the beginning and it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with myself (as a performer). I think that’s the hardest part of the process. You can have the music and everything, but once you’re comfortable with yourself, then you can share it.”
One performer it seems like has been nothing but comfortable with himself ever since he bolted from Tulsa, Oklahoma for the city of Chicago in 1960, is the one-and-only Elvin Bishop. Hanck did a couple of tours of duties in Bishop’s band, although he initially rebuffed the invitation to join up with Pigboy Crabshaw on a couple of different occasions.
“It’s funny, but when I first joined his band in 1977, it was on the third time that he’d asked me. The first time he wanted me to join was in 1972, and he later asked me again after that, but in ’77, my career was really going nowhere,” Hanck said. “I didn’t have any money, no resources and frankly, I don’t think that I was a very good businessman back then. I just didn’t have it together. So it just made sense that I joined him the third time he asked.”
Hanck hooked up with the band right at the peak of Bishop’s commercial zenith, hitting the road to promote the classic Struttin’ My Stuff album. A member of Bishop’s group for over a decade, Hanck finally decided that the time was ripe for him to revamp his solo career in the late 1980s.
“Working with Elvin has always been educational for me, plus we had a lot of fun back in the day,” he said. “When I left, it was on good terms and we’ve done stuff together over the years since then, too. But it was just time for me to go do my own thing when I left and he was fine with that and gave me his blessing.”
It wasn’t until he left the brisk and blustery conditions of the Windy City and had arrived at the warm and sunny climate of California that Hanck really decided that getting serious about picking up a saxophone and learning how to play it was the thing for him.
“I was out on the West Coast surfing and listening to jazz and it just seemed like the horn was the instrument then. The tenor sax was the voice of music back then. I hooked up with some cats in southern California that were playing the blues and I picked up the sax and just kind of taught myself how to play,” he said. “I had tried to take some lessons back in Chicago, but I just wasn’t ready then. I worked during the day and partied at night. I just wasn’t ready to knuckle down and do it right then. But when I moved to California, I got serious about playing the saxophone.”
So does Hanck ever regret throwing in the towel on his budding career as a groovy, free-form playing jazz hipster cat?
Apparently, the answer is ‘no.’
“Some of those guys (Avant-garde musicians) knew what they were doing and some didn’t. You could tell pretty quickly which ones did and which ones didn’t. I was one of the ones that didn’t,” he laughed. “But for about three years I just squawked and scared people, until I finally got it all out of my system.”
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2014
Interviewer Terry Mullins is a journalist and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.